Welcome to this blog of our trip to the Picardie region of France. This was for five weeks in April-May 2016.

The purpose of the trip was to add local experience to the war novel for teens that Libby is writing. It is set in in the Somme in 1918.

The purpose of the blog is to provide a personal framework of pictures and observations.

The nature of blog engines is that they present entries (called ‘posts’) in order of being created; such that what is added most recently comes at the top, and the first written entry (our arrival) comes at the end.

The different posts are based around themes and places, so this is not a day-to-day account. The content of the different thematic posts will change with time, as information is added, removed and edited.

It is also an learning exercise in using WordPress – anyone with skills, help! For example the menu of posts on the right is meant to show 17, but only 5 are displayed.

For a more day-to-day account of this trip, see Libby’s site here





Te Papa

_DSC4329smThe Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (usually called Te Papa) is situated on the waterfront on Wellington Harbour. I visited the exhibition “Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War”.


Such exhibitions blend ideas, information and emotions; conveying something of the personal experience of the individuals to an observer who is 100 years distant to the whole experience, not only of war, but of place and the times themselves. This game with my emotions cut quickly to the core. To blend the personal with the past is a powerful tool in myth creation.


On entering the first of a series of dimly-lit circular chambers the visitor is confronted with an illuminated  2.4 times life-sized model of the wounded New Zealand soldier, Spencer Westmacott, face wrought with tension, firing a revolver over your head. You can circle the figure, and examine in forensic detail the dirt, soil, torn cloths, the bleeding wounds on the knee and hand and sink yourself into this very moment in time. The figures themselves are of exquisite detail; 24,000 hours in their creation; every hair follicle showing. The surrounding walls have the story drawn from his diary, and record time, place, objects, action and fate. Part of this is displayed in small exhibition cases containing confirming evidence, another part of the wall, displays a moving finger of hand-writing of the diary entry, which is read aloud over the soundscape of the battle.

The exhibition leads you through six such tableaus, interspersed with hundreds of photos, personal momentos and personal tools of the waring trades (rifles, bayonets, trenching tools, bandages etc). Small sections deal with global geopolitics, domestic politics, Maori involvement in this European war, and including that the Turks were battle hardened and were defending their own territory from foreign invaders.

The second tableau is also confronting; an army  doctor, Percival Fenwick, crouched over a fallen blood-stained body; the unknown soldier, face covered with a rough blanket. The doctor’s face is a masterpiece of expression: you can read resignation, anguish, reflection and exhaustion. His words, moving across the wall, convey his personal horror of experiencing the slaughter. We are taken far beyond the personal, out of our comfort zone, to face the costs, futility and scope of such enterprises.


_DSC4283sThere is a small accompanying interactive where you can choose your weapon: shrapnel, bullet, grenade or flying metal and watch in slow-motion as it does its particular damage to a life sized x-ray scan of a human body, followed by medical case reports of real people with such injuries.

Along the way we pick up the narrative threads of this unfolding disaster. The first day of the landings made progress up narrow gullies to the surrounding ridge until fierce resistance was met and the advance stopped. The commanders considered withdrawal. Instead, over the next eight months, no further progress was made and a stalemate was in place. Both sides dug in and advances by either side were reciprocated and measured in blood-soaked metres. At times, front-line trenches were only 6-10 feet apart. Deaths rates in battles were expressed in terms of numbers of deaths per yard gained or per acre of ground. It was difficult to cross no-man’s land without stepping on a corpse.

Gradually conditions worsened, casualties in both sides mounted, life was lived in dugout hovels, the wounded, flies, lack of sanitation, lice, poor water and food, the stench of rotting corpses and shit, broken supply lines, many brave actions by both sides, suicidal charges, gallant defences to the last man, attrition and death by shell, shot and disease.

3-dimensional scale models of the landscape glow with moving coloured amoeba-like blobs (we are blue, they are red) portraying the ebb and flow of both sides over time. Like arterial and venous blood flowing through capillaries, bleeding to death, down to sea.

_DSC4277smThere was a major NZ attempt to break the stalemate in August, at a ridge called Chunuk Bair (Australia had hers at Lone Pine). This had elements of surprise and initial success and at the great cost of lives, moments of fatal hesitation, more gallant suicidal charges, and ultimately more death and destruction.

While the New Zealand soldiers captured their objective (largely at night by bayonet), the supporting British forces never arrived and the position had to be abandoned. Of the 700 New Zealand soldiers involved, only 76 were not killed or wounded on that day. The NZ commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone himself was killed by a shell fired in support by a British warship and, perhaps worse, he was subsequently held responsible for the failure of the battle by British command, a claim resolutely disputed by contemporary historians.

Among the most moving experience is the re-created sandbag shelter where just hours before the Kiwi assault on Chunuk Bair, Malone penned the last letter to his wife, Ida. Only three at a time can fit inside to see and hear the reading of the following:

‘My Sweetheart:_DSC4299s
In less than two hours we move off to a valley, where we will be up all night and tomorrow in readiness for a big attack, which will start from tomorrow night. Everything promises well and victory should rest with us. God grant it so and that our casualties will not be too heavy. I expect to go through my dear wife. If anything untoward happens to me there are our dear children to be brought up. You know how I love and have loved you, and we have had many years of great happiness together. If at any time in the past I seemed absorbed in ‘affairs’, it was that I might make proper provision for you and the children. That was due from me. It is true that perhaps I overdid it somewhat. I believe now that I did, but did not see it at the time. I regret very much now that it was so and that I lost more happiness than I need have done. You must forgive me; forgive me also for anything unkindly or hard that I may have said or done in the past.I am prepared for death and hope that God will have forgiven me all my sins. My desire for life – so that I may see and be with you again could not be greater, but I have only done what every man was bound to do in our country’s needs. It has been a great consolation to me that you approved my action; the sacrifice was really yours. May you be consoled and rewarded by our dear Lord’

The close personal contact with grief is exemplified by the figure of the nurse,  Lottie Le Gallais, who served on a hospital ship, weeping on receipt of her letters to her brother, returned as he had been killed.


The curious moralities of war and death are exemplified by the figure of Jack Dunn, a courageous soldier who was court-martialled for falling asleep on guard duty; according to the Army manual this was a capital offence. He was convicted and sentenced and given his record, the sentence was overturned. He also later died at Chunuk Bair.

_DSC4289sThe ferocity is exemplified by two men manning a machine gun in the face of an assault while a third lies dead at their side. There were many instances where positions were held only because of the outstanding bravery of individuals.



After Chunuk Bair there was another major attack past all limits of logical comprehension made under distant orders, men were pushed beyond the limit if their exhaustion; again with large losses, illustrating the crazy futility.

Finally, probably the most notable victory was the silent and strategic withdrawal of 46,000 men over 5 days; they slipped away into the night while giving the impression the landscape remained occupied.

But emotions are not over yet; there is one final twist of the bayonet. On leaving visitors are invited to write a note on a red paper poppy to a fallen person.

This poppy is placed in a pool-like space around the base of an exhausted, advancing soldier._DSC4320s4323mod

All very emotional stuff; there is little military glory or honour, no military victory, only some understanding that our forefathers had an ability to sustain and fight on and frequently die in these circumstances.

I am not sure of the origin of ANZAC day; the exhibition simply claims “On April 25th 1916, our first Anzac Day, we played footy in a village and drank to dead mates”. More official war histories note that by 1916 New Zealand had by gazetted the 25th April as an official day of remembrance of the war dead back home (and something similar in Australia), with soldiers in France and the UK wanting to celebrate this together, as church-led services precluded the mixing of catholics and protestants.

I have never been to a museum exhibition which focusses so personally on a war and told through the experience of six people. In uses fragments of time, largely devoid of global  geopolitics, the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of its time, or the subsequent aftermath. In some ways that is a pity; while we honour the individual we fail to appreciate the flaws in the wider frame that both made this possible, nor do we question the consequences.

If it is at all true, and there is no evidence to doubt it, then there was something special, or at least different, about standards of behaviour which would subsequently be described as ‘magnificent’ where men were repeatedly prepared to act as some primal unit and repeated risk their own lives and repeatedly paid for this with death and disfigurement. Men fighting fellow men, doing whatever it took to kill and survive, and not infrequently honouring these characteristics in the enemy if they did the same, more so for the Turks than for the Germans. This was a manly game, that drew out of individuals the long held classic virtues, the characteristics of a warrior, death before dishonour. One might argue that due to their socialisation and pressures they had little choice, there was no option to ‘beam me up Scotty’. However, it could also be argued that in both sides there was the spirit of pursuing a collective social goal and such a spirit, is rare if not absent today, in how we live and reward and prosper. It is in stark contrast to the fascination with the self, the pursuit of individual pleasures and in generating wealth and possessions insanely past our own requirement and blind to the capacity of a world to sustain these for future generations. Such a terrible waste of life, which continued and scarred all the nations involved. How many men were led to an an unknown and ‘honorable death’ when they could have lived and contributed so much more to social change, or whatever virtue you wish to nominate.

Within the context of what happened in this place, we can question what it is that makes men follow other men and what are these core qualities of leadership that are displayed, however well or badly such sacrifice is exploited.

ANZAC will always be a legend; we will never own, know or experience the events that involved tens of thousands of people 100 years ago.  The French, with their long military history, lost more people in the same invasion of the Dardanelles than we did and to them it is a best-forgotten military debacle; for us remains a mystical event contributing to the abstraction of nationhood.

My grandfather (my mother’s side), George James Sutherland of the Otago Regiment died of wounds a few weeks after his evacuation from Gallipoli in August 1915. He left behind a young wife and two young children; his death greatly affected the passage of all their lives. His letters to his wife were lost in a house fire a few years after this; those to his mother survived and are transcribed by me here.  His final letter, 15th August contains the lines “We are expecting a big smash-up in a day or so and I hope my luck holds good though a big lot of us are bound to go under. However we are all keen for it and from what we learn Otago is to take the lead and have the place of honour.”

I also visited the official war Museum up the hill in Wellington. It is old-school, with a catalogue of uniforms, big guns, maps, street scenes, real tanks, many pictures, lists of war dead and life-sized tableaux. Somehow, emotionally, you walk out through the same door as you entered through.

The June-July 2016 edition of the Australian Book Review contains a review by Andrea Goldsmith of “In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies’ by David Rieff. Goldsmith notes “individual memory degrades very quickly, while official memorising is a tool in service of ideological and cultural currents … official remembrance is big business these days”. Rieff accuses even the Holocaust Museum in Washington of being “book-ended in kitch”. [Goldsmith] rationalised the motivation that by “promoting personal involvement in the (long past) events portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding”.[Goldsmith] regrets the loss of imagination itself as the vehicle for understanding the past, although later comments that memory itself is a form of imagination. Rieff apparently advocates forgetting as a way for individuals to move on from past atrocities, using personal strength and resilience. He claims it was the children and grandchildren (and their own brand of narcissistic remembrance) who dragged the survivors back to Auschwitz. I have bought the book but so far have not read.

In terms of this war, I suspect people who where there did not talk about it (bit like the 60s really) for many reasons; or at least only in code with those who shared it. Its magnitude is overwhelming. Loss, comradeship, love and sacrifice are a heady personal mix and easily distorted by the same social forces that led to these conflicts, wrote history and benefitted at a national scale. It is prudent to privately remember the forces that tore apart families of people we know and our own families and these effects can never be denied or forgotten.



We were a bit blown away by France which, (as they say), exceeded our expectations. We did not expect to encounter a beautiful countryside, with endless rolling green and yellow fields or the many small and large areas of forests which were something out of childhood fairy tales. In the two regions we were, there was a matrix of small villages each a couple of kms apart. The impression was these had hardly changed in size in the 50-100 years and would have dated to farming hamlets around landowners many hundreds of years earlier. Only those with populations of perhaps a thousand would have had any shops. The architectural style was reminiscent of old books and films.

We were visitors in rural communities and our experience was an education in warmth, politeness and interest in what Libby was doing. Life was lived with a certain gusto and pleasure. The past and history was very important, as was politics and a French identity.


My experience in learning French language was probably similar to many other English speakers. Attempts to learn some French were slightly useful, more as they gave confidence, but were functionally pretty inadequate. At times I resorted to sign language, the skills of others and smart-phone language apps. The apps are translate.google.com and translate.yandex.com. You can type or speak into phone, it understands (like Siri) and provides a translation in large characters on screen which you can show people. The google app will also do dual language translations and has a function where you point the camera and the translation appears on-screen in real time. OK not perfect but impressive. The yandex works off-line.

The common experience of language learning is that at around 1 year of age there is a natural capacity to acquire the ability to speak and to hear the sounds which differentiates French from other languages; this declines up to 7 years of age. After that, specific training is required and it becomes really quite difficult if you are >35 years. My experience was you think you are saying something correctly only to get a blank quizzical stare; conversely when something is said to you, only multiple seconds later do you recognise parts of perhaps what was said.

Thus my 10 francs of advice for ‘others/myself next time’ is to intensively learn the phonics of the language via a native speaker plus on-line tools, see here, work on simple vocabulary and grammar via Duolingo or other tools, learn set phrases with a native speaker (although fluency failed me more often than i expected), add more discipline to the process by attending formal classes. Importantly, it’s not all words; learn as much as possible beforehand about the food, culture and other shared values so you have fun and shareable objectives.


Food and wine are major and healthy obsessions and eating a long and multi-course lunch with wine is a common pleasure. A decent local meal is around 20-25 euros, around AUD$30. Our main regret is that we did not easily learn from the food as much as we wanted to, due to lack of language and knowledge / confidence; plus being 10 km from a town also limited our opportunities. We did OK with the abundant and relatively inexpensive (by Australian standards) wine and cheese, less so with the dozens of unfamiliar products in the charcuteries (butcher cum delicatessens). The variety is much greater and we simply did not know what the products were or how to cook them and nor could we intelligently ask.  The boulangeries (bread and cakes) did not turn us on as much as it obviously does the locals; spectacular nevertheless. Three of the four open markets we encountered were more about cheap clothes, hardware etc rather than foods, and we used supermarkets a fair bit. We ate indulgently and drunk without care and did not put on weight; a mystery.


Typical pre-dinner indulgence, several cheeses, paté and a glass of red

On my first day back in Australia I purchased a French cookbook to learn more.

Miscellaneous technology and other hacks

Phones: Our travel insurance (from ‘Covermore’, branch of NRMA) provided international SIM cards for phones (available without insurance for $18). We needed to use their technical helpline a few times and that was efficient. The alternatives would be an Australian post travel SIM or a French provider like Orange. We each used ~AUD$10/week for data. There were times and places where phones dropped out, sometimes resolved by turning off and on.

Navigation: despite buying paper maps which were handy to get spatial perspectives, we extensively used i-phones for navigation. These were pretty essential. There is a fine mesh of roads, limited signage, no ability to anticipate turns and maps are limited. This was especially the case for longer trips, like Albert to Flanders where we were navigated around interim cities, traffic jams, and the apps were very forgiving; when you make a wrong turn they recalculate a new path. I-phones were useful to locate petrol stations; these are not common or obvious.

We bought new small inexpensive laptops for the trip, ~$350 each , I bought an ASUS TP200s, Lib an HP, both had 10 hr battery life, solid state, were very light. We needed to add 32GB cards for additional memory. Both worked seamlessly. Where we stayed had internet and so we extensively used Skype, read newspapers, did email, wrote blogs, edited pictures etc.

A hire car, AVIS, prebooked 2 months ahead, was essential. My hope, to cycle a bit, would have been madness – the roads are narrow, absolutely no curb and traffic fast. Cars are often diesel, and (almost) always manual – which means you have to coordinate driving on the right, with right-hand gear shift and indicators were confused with wipers. The French have a very casual view about street parking and happily half block roads. Some of the road rules and signs remained a mystery to me; which is definitely not advisable.



For a chronological sequence see Lib’s blog , my blog is more impressions,themes etc.

We moved from the green rolling plains of Picardie which hosted the carnage of the Western Front in WW1, to the forests, fields and mountains of Alsace which hosted the Maginot line in the 1930s and tank battles in 1945.

This journey of around 600 kms is achieved in a few hours, thanks to a train system that sweeps you silently across the countryside at 250 km/hr. This is a great speed for travelling – slow enough to see the countryside yet fast enough to make giant strides. Why didn’t Australia spend the $40B buying French high speed trains that many can enjoy, rather than $40B on French submarines that we will never see.

The history of Alsace is obviously important to its character. Anyone interested in more than a five-minute explanation is referred to wiki here 

For those with less than 5 minutes here is my potted history. From Roman times, Alsace region appears to have sort of been Germanic in a way  with Gallic, Latin, high / low Germanic / Flemish / Alsatian languages up until around 1700s, when its residents voted to became part of France. Bear in mind that all these regions were the playthings and objects of trade, princelings, fiefdoms, kings, holy roman empires, conquests, bits of Spain and that nations were less identified entities (which continues in WW1). The region reverted to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and then back to France after WW1, it was then integrated into Germany during WW2, and then reclaimed by France in 1945.

If the analogy is useful, the overall region in shaped like a long banana-split, with the river Rhine dividing the two halves; the German part of the banana is bounded by the Black Forest Mountains on the east and the French opposite boundary by the Vosges Mountains on the west. Food analogies always seem appropriate in France.

We came here to see George and Lil; the history of this relationship almost fits the human timescales of the province. George was almost the first person I befriended in Australia back in the early 1970s. In the couple of faded airport pictures recording anything of those times, I am the young man with wavy shoulder length black hair. George lived through the wall in the adjoining bed-sit in Glebe (we both had different partners than now – it was a long time ago). He was making films and played Kurdish music at night; I worked on the railways in the day and at night knocked on his door to ask him to turn it down so we could sleep. That friendship persisted off and on through my first 5 year period in Australia and then resumed years later in London in the late 70’s. Lib and I met through George, which is another story, and George, Lib and I all lived in the same communal houses in London around 1978-80. We subsequently met briefly again ten years later on a visit to London, where Lil was pregnant with their first child. Alex, who we had never met is now 23 and a sports lawyer in Switzerland, so this gives a human dimension to time-frames. None of us have changed much as inner people; the outer packaging has morphed like one of those ‘5 ages of man (or women)’ cartoons.

The pictures will be divided into four groups, the definitely French (but to me somewhat German/Swiss looking) local towns around Hatten, the Maginot Line, and Strasbourg itself and finally food.

Local towns including Hatten

We were based in George’s ancestral home town of Hatten. His relationship to the region dates back to 1690, see here.

My impression of the local towns, is that development is regulated by both recent and ancient historical precedents. If your town was the site of a WW2 tank battle then most of the shattered town was rebuilt in the late 40s and early 50’s in a hybrid style, whereas if heavy warfare skipped your town, houses may date back several hundred years, with a bit of luck sensitively retrofitted to modern times. The characteristic construction of these older houses is of substantial (~150×150 mm) timber beams forming a lattice, with an infill of plastered brickwork or wattle and daub. These are respectively painted black and white. WW2 not WW1 matters deeply around here. George’s house is in the re-built category.

The overall style has a two or three storey house at the front, another storage / work area behind this and then a very large barn, attached at the rear, forming an “L” shape. The barns no longer hold the family cows/pigs, rather seem stacked with literally cubic meters of logs which are burnt in basement heating systems.

The countryside around these small towns is generally prosperous, with fields under cultivation, some dairy activity, and abundant forests which are typically on public land.








Maginot line

The Maginot line is a complex series of ‘impregnable’ forts, bunkers, communications systems, underground troop stations etc that were constructed as a defensive measure along much of the German – France border with the impending threat of German rearmament in the late 1920s. For those wanting to actually understand the intention, construction, components and success of the Maginot line, then wiki provides a detailed resource, here 

On the advent of war in 1939, the Line was not sufficiently useful to have the desired effects of stopping a German invasion. The pair of Achilles heels were that one portion of the line through difficult terrain the Ardennes forest and was not well fortified, plus Germany ignored the neutrality of the low countries and invaded through Belgium. In subsequent fighting some of the forts were taken while others held out, but honorably ‘surrendered’ after Paris fell; further resistance was futile. Whether this semi-continuous defensive line was a brilliant idea, a reasonable idea for the time or an extremely short-sighted white elephant is the topic of debate in military circles.

We went to one of these, at Schoenenbourg where Lil had been a guide. This involved going down about 30M underground and walking through the 3 km of tunnels which joined the spartan sleeping quarters for 500 with a series of well protected ‘pop-up’ gun emplacements.

DSC4061 (2)sm

This was the back door entrance, the business end is on the other side of the hill facing the enemy.


Almost art deco inside, the chambers on the wall either side of the above  were to be filled with explosives to blow up and block the tunnel should it be entered.


Parts of around 2 km of tunnel


Three layers of wire bunks, of five beds each, very little personal space down here.


Men in uniform; coats not surprising, its damp and around 10-12C most of the year


part of the kitchen, out of shot is an enormous coffee making machine


Part of the complex air conditioning/filtering system in case of gas attack


The turrets and therefore the guns were surprisingly small.


The inner parts of the capital Strasbourg have elements of its street layout and buildings dating back literally hundreds of years. This charm has been greatly increased by a recent tram-based public transport system, lots of freedom for cycles and pedestrians together with major restrictions on cars and trucks. This has the effect of slowing the pace down and encouraging leisurely walking. On moving from the center to the periphery, the usual car-based traffic increases.




Part of a very complicated clockwork system which appeared to be able to show the movement of planets and phases of the moon, celestial figures used to appear like cuckoos every 15 minutes


You get to love these roofs.




How we did not manage to put on weight, I will never know, as we ate and drunk like Frenchmen on holiday. I would be happy to further explore this paradox.


A snack; the regionally famous la tarte flambée – these are traditionally made on a crepe-thin pizza dough topped with creme fraiche, (a thick soured cream mixed with a delicate fresh white cheese called fromage blanc) plus lardons (sort of bacon) and very thinly sliced onion (but many variations occur including chocolate occur). They are cooked in a very hot wood-fired oven, where flames circulate over the top. The base should be blistered but not burnt.

IMG_3432sm (2)

Bringing home the breakfast croissants and baguettes in the morning


breakfast – bread, quince jelly and coffee




A beautifully formed ice cream, shaped like a rose




The regional delicacy; the very famous, perfectly coiffed, kugelhopf cake (comparisons to Italian panettone are not far out)




Lunch at a restaurant in the forest at Koenigsbruck (that’s Alex in the right picture)


Cruditiés: carrot, celeriac, beetroot, tomato, rocket,,,


Main: an excellent interpretation of a fish hamburger (with chips) – at the base fish pieces are molded with a dill sauce, with a triangular slice of bread on top of that, followed by a layer of soft cheese and a few sprouts; plus a few gherkins are on the side with a dab of tomato sauce hidden under the bread.


cafe gourmand, somewhat richer than coffee alone


Walking some of this off with a stroll along the Rhine; the course of this wide, swift-following river has been straightened to facilitate river trade, and the former areas along the banks on the other side of this dyke, turned into aquatic wetlands.

Closed on Mondays

We have not yet got our head around the fact that many places in regional France are closed on Mondays; which is fair enough as they open over le weekend.

Not knowing this, and with the military precision The Monash would be proud of, we set off on Monday on a circuit of several places of interest north west of here. First the caves of Nours; these are kms of tunnels which have been a refuge since the middle ages, and contain WW1 soldiers graffiti. Next was the town of Vignacourt which was made famous (in Australia) by the discovery a couple of years ago of about a cubic meter of glass negatives in an attic. These were of diggers taken on leave in the town in WW1 (it was a rest area). I had been to the lost diggers exhibition in the Perth Museum, see in 2014. And finally to Bertangles, close to Vignacourt, which was the command center for Australian troops in WW1, housed in a chateau.

As I have indicated we arrived at the Caves (along with several others, including French people) to find it was Fermé. So instead all you can see is lots of pictures of Vignacourt and of the chateau.

Vignacourt was  delightful because its only moderately changed in 100 years. You can get an idea of what the diggers would have seen. Also they have a few of these images mounted on the walls around town.  I have said before, Australia is remembered in street names, flags and images in these towns in ways I would not have expected.

NOW and THEN, the town hall (with the siren on top) and buildings each side the same.

_DSC4016sm_DSC4007cp sm

There is nothing special here, I just like the variety and colour in this architecture






And now some of the chateau, love the gates and its hunting theme and all the yards around the back. I can only imagine that in the war, there were some great parties here.

Compared to the vernacular architecture of the towns, this is how the rich (once) lived.






I like this architecture, so here are more pictures of villages around here.

A few pictures of Harbonnières, which saw pretty rugged fighting in 1918





note the history in the naming of this street






The ANZAC myth/spirit

warning – this is a draft i am struggling with ,,,,

“Daddy when I grow up, I want to be an ANZAC”

“That’s nice son (?daughter!), but let’s wait and see what the careers adviser says”

It’s a tricky thing this ANZAC myth/identity/spirit thing, and the longer you are here in France,  the more you examine it. I have seen many more Australian flags flying here than in any Abbott government press conference. Around here on the Western Front the French really appear to take Australia’s role 100 years ago as a serious part of local history, in a way i have not seen other countries remembered. Thank heavens we offered them a $40B contract to build our submarines.

On the topic of ANZAC myths, every single person will have opinions differing in both vehemence and directions. It is inflammatory territory; is it better to stick to travel, food and weather .. and avoid politics, religion and sex? Probably yes, but against all advice, I will try and describe some of my pondering; its more from the book of Ramblings than of Revelations. I struggle with it.

I think that is is a good and necessary thing for both people and peoples to have an somewhat definable identity and myths and stories underwriting this.

Why Australia might choose to identify itself through the ‘Anzac myth’ that is, some wartime activity is not immediately obvious. However as we did perform in this war under a national flag, its not unreasonable that we should look at our behavior then.

Australians are ready now to identify the ANZAC myth with a number of distinctive qualities. These would include in my view a certain anti-authoritarian larrikinism, resilience, equality, toughness, resourcefulness in the face of adversity, mateship, as well as dash and daring in combat. The victories celebrated in the Somme; Le Hamel, Villers Bretonneux, Peronne/Mont St Quentin, the events around Pozieres (Mouquet Farm, Gilbraltar, Windmill) and at Passchendaele are all presented to showcase these qualities.

As is well known, the label ANZAC derived from the relatively brief time that the Army Corps of Australia and New Zealand served together under British command against the Ottoman Empire in 1915. After that, the two forces served separately in Europe. Not that this action was successful, and nor that ANZAC troops were in any majority in terms of this action (the British losses were twice ours, the French about the same as the total for both countries). Somehow out of this adversity  a myth or identity was created and the first identifiable ANZAC celebrations occurred in 1916. The legacy was built on during the course of a bloody war and remains today.

There is no question that this identity was born in immense blood and suffering, huge resilience and some later victories.

Depending on whose figures you quote, roughly one in five (61K of 310K) Australians who went overseas died, and the majority of survivors who returned were injured, physically and / or mentally (one source says 4/5). Similar for New Zealand. That is a staggering figure. This human lose of young males, all volunteers was huge loss for a young colony. (Just for the record, the loss as a percentage of the total population of their nations it was actually modest  when compared to the participating European countries.) This emotional as well as physical toll would be paid by many of the men and their families for the rest of their lives and it echoed for generations. How do you accommodate such sacrifice into a society in an palatable form?

While early public predictions by both sides were for a short war, many others with deeper knowledge disputed the likelihood of this and were proved right. Indeed this was a war, whose game plan involved a high level of human attrition. Some say that senseless attrition itself became the name of the game. Exhausting German supply of men and materials was central to producing their defeat. Thus the aim was not ideas or identity that failed or won, but mega economics. (Ironically after this war Germany created a myth was they were never defeated; its borders were never breached). One might argue that the real ‘victory’ of WW1 achieved at the negotiating table was the capacity of the USA, France and UK to influence the borders and politics of the future Europe and the Middle East. Another legacy we live with. I had no real knowledge of the pre-war boundaries of the Ottoman empire, the subsequent creation of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the so-called Arab states, Palestine, the foreshadowing of Israel, the boundaries of modern Turkey, Greece etc.  A litany of agreements, promises, alliances, deals and ambitions. I am very sure that most of the men who went to fight for King and Country had very little idea of the great game they were participating in.

On top of patriotism, at some primal level there is a disturbing and theoretical attraction to war – arguably more among those who have not experienced it. Historically, engaging in wars has largely been a male activity – whereas the dying of civilians has been more democratically distributed. Whether this attraction is an extension of some primal hunting / territorial urge I don’t know, but in the end that also comes down, at least in part, to a physical way of negotiation for power and limited resources. I also think there is a tendency in men (I hate to say its ‘natural’), to turn a situation into something physical when threatened or wanting to dominate. Women may choose display or discussion or a physical response, but I give them credit for reviewing more options. OK simple gender politics. This of course is not justifying or endorsing force, simply saying there is a primal urge at the back of the brain, and in civilized society (pretty much by definition) we manage and negotiate urges with ourselves all the time. I don’t think I am saying anything new here; and that this spreads from the personal to the political is hardly surprising. Depending on who you read, colonial / imperial competition in militaristic societies was close to the core of why WW1 started, and these processes continue.

We recognize many of these qualities evoked in war are those sometimes celebrated as ‘manly’ virtues. These would include (overt or covert) aggression, competition, fitness and some form of physical victory. Between men pursuing this, there is bonding and sense of unity, fraternity and purpose, and sometimes within this, a hierarchy and discipline. In turn this is underwritten by uniforms and pride in the effectiveness or deadliness of the tools of trade. Despite all its downside, many men reminisce fondly, at least about some aspects of war or military service. I also acknowledge that for the last 100 years those who served are not forgotten by their contemporaries. But in some ways it is easier to eulogise and remember the dead than to stick up and fight post-war bureaucracy for the living or to question why they died.

In Australia, as in many countries, military interests play a significant role in our social and political hierarchy; two of the last three Governors General have been ex-military leaders, as is our current Australian of the Year. There were claims of political influence in selection of the Prime Ministers award for History in 2007 in choosing a book, The Great War. We remain moderate military spenders; according to world bank data, around 7% of total Australian government spending is consumed by the military, compared to around 3% by New Zealand, 5% by the UK; however this is small compared to the more than 20% by the USA and Russia.

Within my family I recall the war experience of my parents. My father had been in the naval volunteers before the second world war, was called up into the Army and moved to the Air Force. He went off to the Pacific Islands for 3 years in communications. On return in 1945 he wanted little to do with the military. He left the servicemen’s organisation after a few years and attended no war memorial events. He wanted nothing to do with the boozy, blokey, pro-war culture that such places involved. I don’t think this was an isolated situation. He was also moved to tears by the War Museum in Canberra, which evoked memories of those he knew who had died. I am named after one. My mother’s father was killed at Gallipoli; this left a widow with two young kids. Many choices were made due to the times, but few served my mother or her brother well.

In the 24 years I spent growing up in New Zealand I think I went to one ANZAC day service as a boy scout at my primary school. I remember poppy day at school each year and invalid war returnees making wooden household items and one legged or one armed men serving as railway crossing guards. There was a WW1 invalid who lived two doors down the road, he had one leg, a white beard  and walked with a cane. ANZAC and WW2 celebrations were pretty low key affairs. Indeed until my thirties, spanning both countries, my main memories are that these events had dying attendances both of servicemen and families. After we finally got over opposition to Vietnam, including to those who were conscripted, there seemed to be a resurgence of an ANZAC spirit. Having seem how the media and Governments in the prelude to WW1 moderated sentiments, the source of this renewed interest appears to stem from tapping into other dissatisfaction occurring in the community, such as national identity, than any overall appreciation of the war itself. Hence a need to re-imagine this distant war, when ‘mother country’ meant something, and draw from it virtues we would like to think define us.

So how does our ANZAC myth serve us now?  Any identity distant from any defining roots is open to all sorts of interpretation. Such a myth is subjective; it has no defining document.

What was written around the time, are hundreds perhaps thousands of diaries, commentaries like those of the official war historian Charles Bean (who took 32 years to complete his official history), reporters Keith Murdoch, Hurley (more for pictures), Phillip Schuler and Charles Smith as well as various official war histories. All of these were subject to heavy censorship (which Murdoch famously once broke to tell about the debacle of the Dardanelles campaign). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of books have followed by those who were there, including pacifist / realist oriented texts such as “Her Privates We” (Frederick Manning) and “Two Masters” (Arthur Wheen) describing the dehumanizing effects of the war on individuals.

Others like Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the British war correspondent, followed the ANZACS closely and helped give birth to the ANZAC legend. (He also damned the campaign, describing the final offensive as “the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn”. He was ordered to leave Gallipoli).

No doubt in the official histories, and despite Bean’s search for accuracy, there is extensive hagiography. Below is cited from The National Library of Australia commenting on the official correspondents:

“… each or the correspondents … experienced the frustrations of censorship …. Some reports were overly colourful and generous to a point which sat uneasily with some Australian soldiers. An entry in The Anzac Book (London: Cassell, 1916), quoted by Ken Inglis, was straight to the point:

Oh, I’ve snarled to read the phrases that the writers coined for us- ‘Deathless heroes-Lasting Glory’, and other foolish fuss. For we’re simple, sinful soldiers, and we’re often rude and rough, And our characters ain’t altered since we donned the khaki stuff.”

The point is that even in 1915-16 there was myth creation for the public back home. Its extremely difficult to have an unbiased view of what happened in its totality.

This brand management continues in 2016, witness the sacking of SBS reporter Scott McIntyre over his ‘inappropriate’ tweets on ANZAC day, which included reference to the rape and pillage conducted by Australian troops on leave in Egypt and recorded in diaries.

The Australian War memorial describes the ANZAC spirit as:

Many saw the Anzac spirit as having been born of egalitarianism and mutual support. According to the stereotype, the Anzac rejected unnecessary restrictions, possessed a sardonic sense of humour, was contemptuous of danger, and proved himself the equal of anyone on the battlefield.

Australians still invoke the Anzac spirit in times of conflict, danger and hardship….

The word “Anzac”, however, has different meanings for different people, and so remains open to interpretation.

I think what also strikes you the more you wander the cemeteries, is the vast number of men who died, and in fact so few were Australian. Not only that, non Australian Commonwealth troops also won a lot of VCs and engaged in bitter conflicts. In some ways this is the bleeding obvious, that we did not have a monopoly on virtues. Indeed if you really want to push the envelope, consider the German advances in early 1918; there had been a stalemate for three years and yet with new tactics and resolve they pushed the front line a hundred times further than the previous three years. They became extended and ran out of supplies and resources and were routed at places like Villers Bretonneux by formidable Australian troops, so victories were not confined to one side.

I suspect many of the so-called  ‘ANZAC’ attributes –  the humor, issues with class and authority, contempt for danger – are shown by many groups of fighting men. However if recognizing these helps soldiers to function in the highly disciplined and stressed environment of combat, so be it. What I am prouder of in the Australian military is their attempts to come to grips with their own internal traditions, like sexual equality and sexual identity issues. Toughness comes in many forms, including the capacity to make ethical judgments. Many modern Armies have done likewise, but Armies have long been the bastion of conservative thinking. What they have struggled with, and this may be more the problem of government than the Army, is getting sufficient recognition for those whose lives have been adversely affected by service. Deaths from combat have declined, but those from self harm after returning from combat zones has skyrocketed. For these challenges the immediacy of the ANZAC spirit is no use, indeed it may be an impediment. Bravery, discipline, sardonic humor and stiff upper lip have never been any help, mate-ship, as well as long term support is.

I also think some challenges of this new century are different than ever before. Some are identified by what is happening in US politics, the use of new technology like the  use of drones, the issue of impending  and catastrophic climate change. Its nothing to do with individuals; when you are the boots on the ground and there is a risk you will be a casualty, you do need all the courage you can muster and  the support of those around you. War and servicemen and women serve complex ends  driven by local and global political agendas; they do that in obedient of those agendas, and they are among those who pay the price for that service, along with the people whom they act on. There is no easy answer, but socially we need to be extremely wary of reaching for the means to exert military power.





We originally passed through the city of Amiens when picking up the rental car en route to our AirBnB house ‘The Chicken Coup’in Laviéville. We returned later to have a decent look at the world heritage listed, Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens.

This Gothic cathedral was built between 1220 and 1270 and is simply breathtaking. Its the tallest and largest in France. Considering all that was available at the time was animal and hand-labor, it must have been the design, engineering and artistic marvel of its day.

Enough words, if you want more go information, go here, otherwise i will let pictures tell the story.

First some exterior, as you can see the front (and parts of the side) are have hundreds of carved figures; each tells a story or represents saints or other religious activities. Its almost fractal like; you can see the big picture, but then you want to go to the smaller detail and smaller detail and pretty soon you would have to crawl like a human fly over the surface looking at all the individual human figures and animals and what they might be doing. I can imagine that in preliterate times this was a gigantic story book, with hundreds of stories and biblical references to trigger the imagination and teach religion.





When you get inside the effect of the tall stone columns, along with all the edges of the stonework is simply stunning. I don’t know much about architecture but i think quite a lot of the decorative stonework, like the pulpit, is 17th and 18th Century


The irregular floor tiling below is a maze, the walking of which was considered an act of pilgrimage.


But what really is the most delightful part, at least to me, are the many small polychrome carvings which come in series, such as John the Baptist. The head of John is reputed to be kept here, as a religious icon, brought back from the crusades. _DSC3938smcp

there are other tales of Saints as well


The intimate detail of a whole story can be contained within a single small panel.


I have no idea what this story is, but you can feel the power of it in these.

On a slightly more contemporary note, there are flags from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Newfoundland in one of the side chapels, having been presented following the WW1 (now slightly worse for wear). The chapel has a gold covered Madonna (the woman pictured was reading the signs, not praying). The cathedral suffered only very minor damage in the war, despite the town being occupied briefly in 1914 and shelled in 1918.


More or less behind this is the small statue of the Weeping Angel. I have used an internet picture of this, better than mine. (attribution). This statue had great appeal for the soldiers in WW1 and was regularly the theme of post cards sent home. Weeping_angel


There was a Saturday market in one of the car parks on the bank of the Somme, where we parked in visiting the cathedral, and I took some pictures and stocked up on more cheese, sausages (duck), paté and vegetables.











Belgium; more than chocolates

All I previously knew about Belgium was Brussels, chocolates, waffles and …  Mathias Cormann? I had heard of Ypres and Passchendaele but never really knew exactly where they were.

I went to the museums in both these cities which pay tribute in their unique ways to the war.


Ypres (French/English name), (locally called Iepers Dutch/Flemish name) is a small town in Southern Belgium dating from Roman times that was completely obliterated by shelling (including early use of gas) during the war. It was one of the few Belgium towns not captured, although the front line curved around it (the Salient). It was rebuilt along the lines of its traditional architecture. Churchill had wanted to leave it as a ruin and reminder; fortunately the locals had other ideas. It is very lovely. In the center is the rebuilt 13th century Cloth Hall, which is now a very large museum called ‘In Flanders Fields’. All war museums are different, but its hard to describe in a few words how. An excellent  70 page pdf file about the museum can be found here


IMG_3178smcpThis one seems to echo the anguish and carefully considered voice of a people who did not want the war (they considered themselves neutral until invaded) and suffered deeply as a consequence. Statistically, their percentage male death rate (~2%) was less than the UK, Australia or New Zealand, (all around 10%). Not that 2% of a male population is trivial, particularly as much of this occurred early in brave attempts to protect their country which were simply out-manned and out-gunned. There were also terrible retributions on the civilian populations. More than a million fled. Many cities were destroyed. The Belgiums flooded large parts of the countryside by opening the dykes and these regions remained un-invaded for the war.

The museum is intensely personal, telling the war stories and suffering of many people and having these stories read out (life-sized videos) by civilians, Germans or Allied troops. The rationale / analysis provided of the period leading up to the war which ended the Belle Époque (of the wealthy, the artists and intellectuals). This cites the combined effects of colonialism, racism, militarism and imperial contests. These are all illustrated, using local, French and British posters and newspapers, including children’s games  and reenacted videos.

It is really evident how public opinion is manipulated by the press and the state. You ask yourself the same question; what has changed?


When we got home, Lib saw the above pictures of this patriotic handkerchief, and sang this song, learnt in the 60’s in primary school. I guess I carried a gun at cadets.


Inside the cavernous space of the museum, with high wooden beams and stone walls, a convoluted path of small and large displays and exhibits. There was the
usual crowds of school children working on projects.


German and Allied battles on Belgium soil saw some of the most costly fighting in terms of human lives of a very bloody war. At the end of a pretty harrowing couple of hours of looking at shells, guns, bayonets, trench reconstructions, uniforms, maps and many many stories of fighting and resistance, past all the memorials of war, you exit via a series of final curtains, which list in detail the hundreds of bloody conflicts that ensued since; ending with Syria, 2015-.IMG_3200smcp

I have no idea what the new WW1 exhibition in Canberra will do, but the dialogue and sentiments of this place, while recognizing the qualities of heroism, vastly overshadow this with analysis of the causes, the human  suffering of men, women, children, as well as the destruction of cultural heritage and degradation of the land, and the sheer destructive madness of the whole enterprise. This is no place of celebration and the memories are just outside the door.

“Time, grief and memory, sanitize sentimentalize and warp the reality” from the book Siegfried Sassoon, by John Stuart Roberts, commenting on the poem, Aftermath.

Indeed Sassoon more than a mention in the Museum; there is a large banner with his poem  A wooden cross, written following the death of a close friend. Sassoon had initially been a heroic participant in the war, (Military Cross), and gradually became strongly outspoken in opposing his Government’s pursuit of it. At the time of writing he had been confined to a mental institution in response to this resistance.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate, a couple of hundred meters from the Museum and on the city walls, records the names of 54,000 soldiers from Commonwealth Countries who fell in these campaigns and have no known graves. It does not include the thousands of New Zealanders, who are named at three other sites. Every evening since 1928 at precisely eight o’clock, traffic around the Gates is stopped while the Last Post is sounded beneath the gate by the local fire brigade. This is except for a period during the Second World War when Ypres was occupied by Germany. The tradition was continued in the UK during the war and was resumed at the Gate on the very evening of liberation, 6 September 1944.


Not all see the Gate quite so heroically. Sassoon re-visted Ypers in the early 1920s and was disgusted at its tourist trap nature, and how individuals he had known were reduced to closely spaced names on a wall.

“Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?”
— Siegfried Sassoon, On Passing the Menin Gate


And so 12 kms (as the shell flies) east across the flat marshy landscape is Passchendaele. A tiny town on the other side of then front-line, that is synonymous with some of the worst fighting in the war. This town was part of the Allied objective in 1917. Estimates of casualties vary, but were probably 250,000 Allies and 400,000 Germans. Many books have been written about the multiple battles  (also called Battle of Ypres); see extensive Wikipedia entry, here.

After months of fighting in surrounding areas, the First Battle of Passchendaele (so called third battle of Ypres) occurred on 12 October 1917 in heavy rain and thigh-deep mud and lacked sufficient artillery support. Advances were made and then lost in counter attacks. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, included 2,735 New Zealanders  – the single worst day in New Zealand military history.

To remind you of mud, here is the famous photo by Frank Hurley of Australian troops in the region.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1446191Chateauwood

The museum at Passchendaele is well worth a visit. Its smaller and housed in what is  a large two story chateaux, rebuilt after the war. It has a lot of original material about uniforms, the kit soldiers carried, the different battles in the region, the best collection of gas shells and gas masks, (you can even smell the different gases), the usual guns and mortars, some original carts and an extensive underground ‘city’ with about 20 rooms all claustrophobic and timber-lined plus an extensive outdoor trench system that must be a boon for teachers when the school kids are getting restless. It has separate rooms dedicated to each of New Zealand and Australia in the war, with uniforms, items, old photos and interviews.

IMG_3210 (2)

Finally a couple of trivia questions about hats.

  1. What did the US and NZ have in common in terms of uniform? Correct they both had ‘lemon-squeezer’ hats (below: NZ on left with red band, US on right with other kit)
  2. What changes occurred in Australian slouch hats in the war? Correct. Monash allowed them worn with a flat brim, with the badge on the front rather than the original turned up with the badge on the right side. (no picture yet).